12th Night of Love

20 min readDec 3, 2020

Twelfth Night, originally created and written by William Shakespeare, is among one of Shakespeare’s most renowned plays. Twelfth Night toys with the themes of love and gender, where women pose as men and get caught up in complicated love triangles which only become more elaborate as the play progresses. This humour-filled production has been uniquely adapted by numerous theatres and procured into many movies in the past centuries. Some of the most notable include the Globe Theatre Production, National Theatre Production, Royal Shakespeare Company Production, Twelfth Night or What You Will (1996) and She’s The Man (2006).

Starting A Play: Learning From The Best

First impressions are everything. As shallow as we all say they are, first impressions are often made everywhere in one’s daily lifestyle — often subconsciously as well — whether they be at a job interview, meeting a new classmate, looking at a task or reading (or watching) Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

The first scenes in a play are crucial in grabbing the reader’s attention and interest, which Shakespeare does exceptionally well. In what is undoubtedly a bold and unique decision, Shakespeare opts to start the play in Duke Orsino’s court, where he delivers his flowery monologue on his broken heart. We then travel to the coast of Illyria, where Viola and the Captain have escaped from a shipwreck. The Globe Theatre production follows Shakespeare’s script and starts with Orsino’s speech. I found that the main attribute of this play was the surrounding environment rather than the production itself; with the traditional all-male cast, an opportunity to be a ‘groundling’ and truly immerse yourself in the Shakespearean atmosphere.

The National Theatre production, on the other hand, opens with a new scene highlighting solely the shipwreck. With a dark ambience, Sebastian is shown to hand off the edge of the ship and eventually fall into the abyss of the water. In what is a modern rendition of the play, this production notably portrays Malvolio, Feste and Fabian as women by the names of Malvolia, Feste and Fabia, respectively. The director, Simon Godwin, does well in simplifying, rearranging, and cutting scenes to fit the significantly faster pace of the production. In my eyes, this play was more akin to a movie, with its quicker pace, revolving stage to capture different settings more accurately, and diverse cast. Many popular movies begin with prologues to establish context or show an earlier event for viewer’s to keep in the back of their minds. This may be why the traditional renditions of Twelfth Night begin in Orsino’s court — to make the production seem more like a play as opposed to a movie. It also keeps an air of mystery in the air and allows for a smoother transition to the subsequent acts.

Famous movies with renowned prologues

These first two scenes are also quite significant in the play as they tell us a great deal about the characters and themes that are later expanded upon. Orsino’s famous opening line, “If music be the food of love, play on”, is the beginning of a melodramatic speech on his empty heart and foreshadows two significant themes in the play — music and love. He then abruptly asks them to leave which exemplifies his restless nature. When Valentine delivers him the message of Olivia’s mourning and forsaking of men, Orsino does not fret at all but rather believes that if she feels such a “debt of love but to a brother”, she will be capable of loving him more. This, further, informs us of Orsino as a person — one who is rather egotistical and arrogant.

I do, however, find that Orsino’s portrayal in the National Theatre production paints in him out to be more sincere as opposed to the one in the Globe Theatre production. In the former, Orsino holds out a teddy bear and bouquet, presumably anticipating for the arrival of Olivia, and much to his disappointment when she does not arrive, he “bades” the musicians to stop playing. Whereas in the Globe Theatre version, Orsino coldly tells them to stop.

Orsino depicted in the Globe Theatre Production (left) and the National Theatre Production (right)

The second scene of Act 1 is a great exemplification of Viola’s sheer wits. Although stricken with grief, she is able to quickly come to her sense and realised she needs a suitable place to work. Viola whirls up a plan to disguise herself, with the help of the captain, and work for Orsino as a eunuch. Her decision to do this may have also been influenced by the death of her brother; and by posing as a man, she is mourning and bringing her brother ‘back to life’. Comparing the two productions again, I think that the Viola in the Globe Theatre rendition was ironically more feminine than the one in the National Theatre production. In the Globe Theatre version, Viola is seen to wear a long dress and cover herself with a jacket as she speaks to The Captain, whereas in the latter, she is in a hospital bed. The modernity of the latter undoubtedly has a role in this as the Globe Theatre production aims to emulate the plays as seen in Shakespearean times — where women were societally characterised as more feminine beings.

Act 1 Scenes 1 and 2 perform outstandingly well in setting up the rest of the play and hooking readers for the eventful scenes to come.

Emergence of New Love

In Act 1 Scene 5 of Twelfth Night, there is emphasis of the interactions between Olivia and Feste as well as the first time Olivia and Cesario meet, which adds on to building a strong foundation for the story of Twelfth Night. This scene is where Olivia’s “love at first sight” towards “Cesario”, or Viola, is first apparent, building tension and complications throughout the whole story. Olivia first exchanges with Feste, the jester, where Feste uses his wit to win over Olivia into letting him stay. Although Olivia is fine with Feste, Malvolio on the other hand despises him, insulting Feste by calling him a rascal. In this same scene, Cesario is described to be waiting outside, held by Sir Toby, which Olivia does not think highly of. When Cesario enters the room, he begins delivering and reciting Orsino’s love to “the lady of the house”. As the conversation continues, Olivia is intrigued by Cesario, agreeing to speak with “him” alone. Both characters begin to converse at a much more personal level, where Cesario begins to speak for “himself”, causing Olivia to fall in love with “him”. Once Cesario has been sent away, Olivia confesses to the audience she is indeed in love.

This scene is one of the most vital and key scenes in the plot and story, as this is where the complications, love triangle, and mutual dislikes begin to sprout from. Twelfth night is centred around the very notable love triangle, between Olivia, Orsino and ‘Cesario’ (Viola). This scene is where Olivia begins to grow feelings of love for said Cesario, which will lead to her taking desperate actions to get closer to ‘him’, often causing the situation to worsen, thus the climax. This scene covers a whole lot about the theme of love, which seems to be the main theme surrounding the entire play. It also plays a significant role both just by itself as well as a whole, as it is where the true seed of the story develops as well as adding on to the characteristics as well as personalities of the characters. Although the main ‘event’ of the scene was the conversation between Olivia and Viola, the beginning of the scene lightly touches on the character development of Malvolio and Feste, two characters that play vital roles in a separate plot from the love triangle.

The 2017 National Theatre adaptation of Twelfth Night involved a few tweaks and changes that were not originally in the script, such as the bend or change in gender, exampled Malvolio into Malvolia as well as Fabian as a woman. This provides a different impact on the audience, as it touches on some of the new aspects of this modern world that may not have been apparent during Shakespeare’s time, with Malvolia seemingly showing interest in Olivia, someone of the same gender. Another change that was apparent was the modernized version of Twelfth Night, using new technology that was not available for Shakespeare’s generation, such as pools, automobiles and many more. As for the themes and story of the play, they are, for the most part, very similar to that of the original script, except for minor changes such as “exchanges” and songs that were not scripted in the first version. As for Act 1 Scene 5 in this adaptation, Feste is seen to be changed into a female version, where she wears uniquely green apparels and modern clothing. Jesters are usually seen to wear outfits that resemble clown costumes, but Feste here does not. Lastly, the way Olivia and Cesario interact is similar yet different, where in this version Cesario uses a guitar as well as Olivia using glasses instead of a veil. This is a clever and effective modern twist that was made to the story.

A Unique Peek at Aguecheek

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night Act 2 scene 3 generally delivers a humorous scene, with hints of themes such as deception and status. This scene in its entirety sort of acts as comedic relief to the preceding scene which has a substantial amount of drama with Viola and Olivia and as such focuses on Sir Toby, Feste and Andrew Aguecheek, developing their foolish characters. Its premise is sort of simple and has a similar vibe to a cartoon’s plot like Shaun the sheep, a couple of blokes messing around with each other, there’s a “bad” person and they all deceive him afterwards. Though through the usage of slapstick like language and tonal shifts and jumps in the play, the scene revitalises itself, providing a refreshing break for the viewers before re-entering the main plot again with Viola. This is most notable in the visual plays, namely the National Theatre version, where is it evident how the text is supposed to be humorous. An example of this is through the irony when they boisterously sing “Thou Knave”, dancing proudly while singing whole-heartedly, “Hold thy peace” (shut up) to each other. This followed by the classic lumbering and drunkenness attached to the characters, Sir Toby and Andrew Aguecheek, it provides a visually comedic scene in the act. Comparatively, in the written version, prose is used instead of acting to elucidate the comedic manner of tone in the text.

Sad Man Aguecheek
Aguecheek’s Public Persona

However, looking beyond the theatrical and comedic aspects of the scene, there lies a somewhat deeper and dark truth reflected in an unlikely character, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. It seems odd when looking at the goofy and ballistic man Aguecheek is as us, the readers are satisfied and fulfilled with his rigid and funny foolish personality, his deception. His character is one who is constricted in the play, forced to act, by his social standing and role in his friend group, not revealing his true self but instead going with what society wants him to be. His literal existence embodies the ubiquitous theme of deception in the book, albeit less obvious than Viola’s one. In act 2 scene 3 of the Globe Version of Twelfth Night, we get an interesting glimpse into the depth of Aguecheek’s complex character and how “[he] was adored once]”. Though a comical adlib, it casts a big doubt on his wellbeing and his past. Continually, when Feste, sings about the joyful and fulfilling aspects of love, Aguecheek seems to reminisce, complimenting Feste on his “mellifluous voice” though we can take this to refer to the lyrics of the song, as he looks down in the theatre production and assumingly remembers the “sweet” taste of love, how “Youth’s a stuff [has] not endure” and that it is too late for him to find love anymore. This is the only glimpse we get of his melancholic alter personality which I think exists in hibernation, internally clashing with his outward goofy character like Bad Cop/Good Cop in the Lego movie. Although it’s definitely a far stretched theory, I think it makes sense considering what we know about the backstory of the man, he is in a dire financial situation, heartbroken and ridiculed by those he considers to be his friends. He just does not win. Furthermore, laughing and smiling through difficulties is a psychological coping technique people frequently use when facing problems. This pragmatic portrayal of the harsh cruelty of real life is something emphasised in this scene through deception.

Nevertheless, this scene plot-wise provides great insight into the side characters of the play and is the transition before Malvolio’s receives his letter.

The Prank That Went Too Far

Act 2 Scene 5 is an important scene of Twelfth night. This scene is one of the famous scenes in Shakespeare and is known as ‘the gulling of Malvolio’. Act 2 Scene 5 continues on from Act 2 Scene 3 with the subplot when Maria plans the trick. In this scene, Maria, Sir Andrew, Sir Toby and Fabian decide to make a fool of Malvolio after he scolded Sir Andrew and Sir Toby for drinking alcohol in Olivia’s house. Maria tricked him by writing a letter in Olivia’s handwriting that she loves him. They then leave the letter in a place where Malvolio would easily find it and hide to see his reaction. Malvolio then finds it and thinking it was from Olivia talks aloud about dreaming of marrying her and also insults Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. While this scene does not contribute much to the main plot of the play, it entertains the audience with its humour after the very serious scene in Act 2 Scene 4.

The language in this scene is different from the previous scenes. Most of the scene is written in prose. This is because the characters and setting in the scene is more informal while the characters are playing a prank compared to the scenes in Orsino’s household where Orsino is talking about love. The characters speaking in prose makes the mood more casual and allows humour to be put in the scene. However, Malvolio was speaking in prose when he was his love for Olivia and dreaming about marrying her where Orsino used verse. This choice of language adds humour to the scene. This is explained very well in this website.

In Act 2 Scene 5 we learn a lot about the type of person Malvolio is. From the previous scenes, we have already seen that Malvolio is a killjoy, trying to break up Sir Toby and Sir Andrew’s party. When he was reading the letter, we find out that he is also very self-obsessed as he immediately believes that Olivia loves him. was talking about how he could be “Count Malvolio” and have more power than Sir Toby. When Malvolio was reading the letter, he said “Toby approaches; curtsies there to me”. This shows that when he was talking about how he could be “Count Malvolio” part of that was that he wanted to have more power than Sir Toby. In my opinion, the prank was funny at first but they took the joke too far when they got Malvolio locked in the dark room when all he did was tell off Sir Toby and Sir Andrew for drinking.

This scene uses a type of technique where the audience knows what is going on but the characters in the play do not. It was funny to see how Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria, and Fabian were hiding in obvious places but are not noticed by Malvolio. In the National Theatre adaptation, which is a modern-day version of the play, they were hiding behind plants in pots and lining up behind the water fountain, in the direction where Malvolio can’t see them. In the Globe theatre adaptation, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew were even talking loudly without Malvolio noticing. Every time Malvolio insults Sir Toby or Sir Andrew, they could not control their anger and shouts loudly. Maria and Fabian had to calm them down but Malvolio did not suspect anything. This adds even more humour and makes it more entreating for the audience.

Relationships of Love and Deception

In Act 3 Scene 2+3 Sir Andrew wants to no longer chase after Olivia since he saw her talking to the messenger (Viola) in the garden and showing more interest in the messenger than him. However, Sir Toby and Fabian manage to convince him to stay by telling him that Oliva was expressing her love to Sir Andrew, by making his passions fire up and making him angry and jealous. Sir Andrew wants to show his courage to Olivia and Sir Toby comes up with the idea to right a message to the messenger to fight him. Sir Andrew agrees and right after Maria enters telling Sir Toby about how Malvolio is doing silly things that he found in a letter which he believes is a love letter from Oliva, but is a letter written by Maria. In Scene 3 Sebastian and Antonio enter the city and are looking for a place to stay. Antonio knows the city better than Sebastian and finds an inn named the Elephant to stay. However, Antonio is a criminal around these parts and will make his way to the Elephant quietly telling Sebastian to meet him there.

The reason this part of the play is important to the play as a whole is it shows the true nature of the relationships between the characters. In scene 2 the first shown relationship is between Sir Toby and Sir Andrew who are both good friends. Sir Andrew is feeling sad because Oliva is not showing any affection towards him, but Toby manages to support and encourage Andrew to make him stay and feel worthy enough to keep trying, showing the strength in their friendship. However, this idea of a supporting friendship between the two is quickly juxtaposed when Sir Andrew leaves to write his letter. Sir Toby admits to Fabian ‘For Andrew, if he were opened and you find so much blood in his liver as will clog the foot of a flea, I’ll eat the rest of the anatomy’, that he only wants Sir Andrew to stay so he can keep getting money from him. This betrayal in their friendships displays themes of deception and putting out an act in the relationship between Sir Andrew and Toby. Nearing the end of the scene 2, Maria barges in to tell Sir Andrew about how foolish Malvolio is acting due to the fake love letter from Oliva. The foolish way Malvolio acts can be seen in the other love relationships in the play. The love relationship between Cesario and Orsino, and the relationship between Cesario and Olivia. Shakespeare links all these together showing how ridiculously these characters act for the sake of love and when in love. The audience can see how stupid the characters act when in love, for example ‘What is your parentage?’… ‘Methinks I feel this youth’s perfection’ show how half-witted Olivia talks to Cesario when they first meet.

In Act 3 scene 3, Antonio and Sebastian are in Illyria and Sebastian wants to explore the town. Antonio says its not wise since he is an enemy to Orsino due to a battle that destroyed many of Orsino’s ships. Antonio says that he will find them an inn to stay called the Elephant and he hands Sebastian his money to buy something he likes when exploring the city. This scene shows another relationship, Antonio shows unconditional love towards Sebastian, ‘I could not stay behind you. My desire, more sharp than filèd steel, did spur me forth’, and is always giving and wants nothing in return. This love appears romantic in nature and Antonio ends up falling in love with Sebastian. When the play was created, Homosexuality was looked down upon and punishable by law, Shakespeare uses Twelfth night to look into homosexual relationships, in the society at the time, asking questions like; ‘Is it wrong to fall in love with the same gender?’ and with the relationships between Cesario and Orsino, plus Viola and Cesario, ‘What if you thought they were the opposite gender?’

The play of Twelfth Night produced by the National Theatre and Directed by Simon Godwin gave a more modernised approach and view. The actors were played by both genders rather than just males like in Shakespeare’s time and some of the characters who were meant to be male were female like Malvolio and Feste. The acting in this version was done well and it executed the personality of the characters perfectly. For instance, in Act 3 Scene 2 the actor for Sir Andrew and Sir Toby were chosen correctly, Sir Andrew’s dim-witted and vain character and Sir Toby’s drunk, ill-mannered and trickery were displayed nicely through both the way they are dressed, act and tone, fitting perfectly for the scene to display the themes.

Dangerous Doppelgänger

Act 4 scene 1 is a significant scene because it demonstrates a lot of the key themes that this play is based on. In this scene, there are several concepts that occur that develop the play. Firstly, Feste is sent to find Cesario so Sir Andrew can continue the fight. He then runs into Sebastian and mistakes him for Cesario. This is important as it compliments the main theme of the play being absurd gender swaps causing confusion between all the characters in the play. Sir Andrew then attempts to fight Sebastian, who fights back. After hitting Sir Andrew back, Sebastian questions, “Are all the people mad?” This shows how confused Sebastian is about the situation and why all the characters seemingly recognize him. Olivia interrupts as Sir Toby and Sebastian are about to fight and tells everyone to leave Sebastian alone. She pulls Sebastian to the side, being very sweet to him and then asks him to follow her out. Confused Sebastian accepts the situation. A common theme that is demonstrated in this scene is another big theme of the book, being confusion. The backbone of twelfth night is based on the love triangle between Orsino, Olivia and Viola. This love triangle causes major confusion throughout the whole play, as Viola is disguised as Cesario, meaning Orsino and Olivia both believe that Viola is male. Consequently, Viola also has a twin called Sebastian, which would look very close to Viola when dressed as Cesario. There is a lot of confusion in this scene about who is who and I believe this is also demonstrated throughout the whole play.

In the national theatre version of the play, they make the setting a more modern pub. I think this choice is based on the characters involved in this scene. The characters in this scene are composed of most of Olivia’s household. Sir Andrew, Sir Toby, Fabian, Feste, Olivia, and Sebastian all appear in this scene. Olivia’s household is more filled with drunkards and fools compared to Orsino’s household. Hence, a pub would be a good setting for this to take place. There are also some alterations that take place in the national theatre version. The scene, (and the whole play) is attempted to be made more modern. I believe this may be done so they can appeal to younger people who may not be engaged by the older versions of the play. I think this is a good idea as it can get younger people more enthusiastic about Shakespeare and his plays. I really like how a musical element was incorporated into the national theatre version of this scene as it really added more uniqueness to the scene and really distinguished it from the other ones. The acting out of this scene really added a lot of how the scene plays out and heavily influenced my interpretation of the scene. In the national theatre version, the fight is also played out a little bit before being interrupted by Olivia. My interpretation of how they show the fight is like more of a “dance off” where both Sebastian and Sir Toby move in sync with each other. I believe this is purposely done so the fight is shown in a civil matter, while still keeping the chaos. It also makes it very entertaining to watch and draws interest to the scene. In conclusion, I believe act 4 scene 1 is a very important scene in Twelfth Night as it contains many of the key themes in this play and shows off many of the characters traits.

Strengthening Bonds With A Stranger

Act 4, Scene 3 follows the events of Scene 1 of the same act, where Sebastian is introduced to Olivia’s camp and mistaken for Cesario. This Scene is the culmination of four acts worth of build-up and is the beginning to the end of Twelfth Night. As all the characters start assembling for the finale in Act 5 and the realisation that is to come when Sebastian and Viola are revealed to be siblings, Act 4, Scene 3 plays at a mellower tone in comparison to the rambunctiousness that is to come.

Act 3 begins with Sebastian questioning himself. The quote “This pearl she gave me, I do feel’t and see’t,” from line 2 of Act 4, Scene 3 shows that Sebastian is having a hard time coming to terms with what has just unfolded in the past day. It has not even been 24 hours since his encounter with Feste, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, and the events which led to him meeting Olivia and Sebastian if it was all a dream. But looking down at the Pearls that Olivia has gifted him, he knows that this is all too real to be a dream. And he is already too deep in this reality for it to be a falsehood.

When Olivia asks Sebastian “Would thou’dst be ruled by me!” he agrees immediately to her demands. This plays on the theme of “love at first sight,” a theme that is prevalent in a lot of Shakespearean plays. After the incident with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, he is relieved to be saved by someone like Olivia. Everything happens so suddenly that Sebastian thinks he is dreaming saying “If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep.”

Sebastian is still contemplating his situation as well as the whereabouts of Antonio saying, “His counsel now might do me golden service.” This goes to show, how much trust and value Sebastian puts into Antonio’s advice in Twelfth Night. And this trust and value is justified as Antonio can be considered Sebastian’s saviour after all. As Sebastian is scrutinizing over his current situation and yearning for the well thought out and informed counsel of Antonio, Olivia enters the scene along with The Priest.

Oliva believes that the man in front of her is Cesario. She has fallen in love with Cesario and wants him to express similar feelings back to her. “Plight me the full assurance of your faith.” This line from Olivia in Act 4, Scene 3 reveals a more selfish and needy side of Olivia to the audience. She is done waiting and believes that if the two of them were to get married, then her “Doubtful soul, may live at peace.”

This, however, is all a big misunderstanding, which brings us to the overall significance of the scene. Later, when it is revealed that the man Olivia got married to was not in face the same Cesario that she thought she was getting married to. This triggers a series of events which lead to Cesario, who has just been revealed as female, to confess to Orsino.

Overall Act 4, Scene 3, continued the main story whilst also transitioning seamlessly from Scene 1 of the same act. On top of that, it helped to finalise, certain elements of the story and established further complications to add to the finale that was to unveil in Act 5. For these reasons, this scene was a necessity to create a polished and finalised element to the whole production.

A True Masterpiece

The compiled pieces in this article hopefully present an assortment of interesting topics for you, whether this be the interesting characters or themes in the play. As shown, Shakespeare really knows his way around literature, capable of turning a complicating plotline into something much more engaging and exciting using visual and literacy devices to encapsulate attention. For further learning, podcasts and discussions about Twelfth Night, such as University of Oxford Twelfth Night podcast and the morals of twelfth night, are highly recommended.